Even though he’s a founding member of the Justice League, Aquaman’s never really enjoyed the same kind of widespread cultural significance other characters like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman have. Aquaman’s had a long-standing image problem, but with Justice League, DC’s finally trying to fix it in a very compelling way: by making him sexy as hell.
Over the years, the Justice League has had many origin stories that each re-imagine the team’s genesis in slightly different ways. But when the heroes first came together in The Brave and the Bold #28 back in the spring of 1960, it all began with Aquaman.
While swimming through the Atlantic Ocean on a routine patrol, Aquaman is contacted by his friend Peter the puffer fish, who’d recently witnessed Starro, a gargantuan starfish-like alien creature from beyond the stars, descend from the sky before plunging into the sea. Curious, Peter followed Starro into the murky depths and watched from afar as it transformed three Earth starfish into monstrous beings like itself. As Peter recounts Starro’s plans to conquer the planet, Aquaman uses his A-Belt to signal the other Justice Leaguers that they must stop what they’re doing, gather at their headquarters, and figure out how they’re going to save the world.
Though the idea of a superhero team wasn’t new at the time, the Justice League was the first squad of its kind in the Silver Age of comics and proved to be a massive hit with DC’s readers. Later that same year, the team began starring in its own ongoing series that helped catapult its signature characters to new levels mainstream popularity.
One of the most fascinating things about the early Justice League of America comics is how conspicuously absent Batman and Superman are from many of them. On more than a few occasions, two-thirds of DC’s Trinity would leave the heroics to their colleagues, giving Aquaman, the Flash, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Martian Manhunter a chance to shine. For years, Aquaman stood on a level playing field with DC’s other flagship heroes, proving himself to be an invaluable member of the Justice League and the sort of character that, in retrospect, could have become an even larger presence within the company’s increasingly expansive multimedia portfolio.
But then, Super Friends happened and for a very large audience of people, Aquaman was transformed into a dolphin-riding joke whose main superpower was his ability to talk to fish.
The one-two punch of Super Friends’ popularity and the cancellation of his solo series in 1971 was the beginning of Aquaman’s demotion to third-stringer status where he would remain for years until writer Robert Loren Fleming rescued him in the late ‘80s. Fleming’s Legend of Aquaman was more than a mere reboot of the character—it was the first in a long line of steps DC took to gradually rehabilitate Aquaman’s image in its comic books, an endeavour that’s certainly been successful. But the fact that Aquaman’s glow up came decades after the rest of the Justice League had spent literally decades becoming more prominent in the public consciousness has proven to be a continual problem for him.
Though Aquaman’s been the badass king of Atlantis for a while now, that iteration the character has never really existed outside of DC’s comics while characters like Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman have had the opportunity to evolve across an array of various television shows and films. Meanwhile, Aquaman’s still been the butt of many a joke that all harken back to his Super Friends days. Entourage, for example, spent two seasons making fun of the idea of an Aquaman film.
Aquaman being forced to play catch-up to his peers might not seem important at first, but it’s a serious problem, especially when you take into account the fact that people’s ideas about these characters have been increasingly informed by their appearances outside of the comics. Warner Bros., Fox, and Marvel’s and respective superhero franchises aren’t popular now because comics have suddenly become better in recent years. It’s because those characters have had the time to settle into well-established, highly visible identities that studios know audiences will recognise and embrace.
The same can’t exactly be said for Aquaman, but with this year’s Justice League film, Warner Bros. and DC have made a very important decision. If you’re reading this article, then you probably already knew a fair amount about Aquaman. But for the majority of the people across the world who’ll see Justice League in the coming months, Jason Momoa’s take on the character will be definitive.
Where previous versions of Aquaman’s have ranged between clean-cut, fish whispering boy scout and beleaguered king beneath the sea, Momoa’s skews more towards the bad boy/loner type who comes to discover that he actually enjoys slaying parademons alongside his fellow heroes. Momoa’s Aquaman wears low-rise jeans, rides shotgun on the roof of the Batmobile, and looks like this:
Though impressive, the kind of idealised, hyper-masculine aesthetic that Momoa embodies isn’t really unique in the landscape of modern superhero movies—it’s actually kind of standard at this point. But it is a very significant update for Aquaman that codes him as the kind of character that can and will headline a film of his own with the potential for sequels.
For Warner Bros. and DC, this makes it that much easier to finally bring their wealth of excellent Aquaman stories to the fore on a much larger, more easily accessible platform that ultimately benefits both them and audiences. This is more or less exactly what happened after Chris Pratt got shredded for Guardians of the Galaxy and Star-Lord’s appearance in Marvel’s comics was updated to more closely resemble his cinematic counterpart. Increased interest in the character led to a new ongoing series and that series produced some of the best stories about Peter Quill.
Looks are not everything, and it should be noted that Momoa truly does bring something refreshing and utterly compelling to the screen that will leave you curious to see the Aquaman movie next December. But you’ve really got to hand it to Warner Bros. for seizing on this opportunity. They haven’t always made the best decisions while making DC’s troubled extended universe of movies, but making Aquaman sexy is absolutely one of their smartest.